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Whye, Alfred Ernest (1882–1969)

by Kathryn Whye

This article was published online in 2021

Alfred Whye, c1904

Alfred Whye, c1904

family

Alfred Ernest Whye (1882–1969), soldier, expatriate and railway worker, was born in 1882 at Gongolgon, New South Wales, one of ten children of Englishman Alfred Whye, wool presser, and Catherine (Carrie) Frances Hilt, a Wayilwan woman. His siblings were Victoria, Mary, Elizabeth, Lilly, George, Frederick, Albert, Frances, and Caroline. Alfred grew up at Gongolgon before moving with his mother and siblings to Brewarrina Mission Station, where he was called Boogie, meaning ghost, by the other children because of his fair complexion. He learned to read and write at the mission school and worked on nearby properties, including at Allan Yeomans’s Gilgoin station.

Severe drought at the turn of the century caused the break-up of stations throughout New South Wales and high unemployment. This may have prompted Whye to enlist to fight in the South African War. Aboriginal men were able to enlist to fight in this war because, prior to 1901, the States were responsible for their own defence arrangements. It was not until 1909, with the passage of the Commonwealth Defence Act, that Aboriginal men were excluded. At least eight other Aboriginal men also enlisted to fight in South Africa. On 27 February 1901 Whye joined the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles as a trooper. Standing five feet seven-and-a-half inches (164 cm) tall, he was described as having a dark complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair. He arrived at Durban in May 1901. Reflecting on his war experiences in later life, he stated that he:

Chased the Boers around and about. We captured hundreds of them … and took all their big guns. In the end all they were left with was rifles. They were tough though, by gee. The gamest I ever saw. Some of them were boys, only 12-years-old they were. And old men, with their clothes all patched up. But gee could they fight. (South Auckland Courier 1968, 3)

Like many soldiers, Whye underplayed the toughness of the war. He spent long periods in the saddle, trekking across the veldt, where temperatures ranged from searing heat during the day to freezing cold at night. With few opportunities to wash or change clothes, lice were a constant problem. There was inadequate food and water and many men died of disease. Whye was discharged on 12 June 1902 in Sydney. His conduct and character were described as exemplary, and he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa medal with five campaign clasps: Cape Colony, Transvaal, Eastern Orange River Colony, South Africa 1901, and South Africa 1902.

Unable to find regular employment in Sydney, and having gained a taste for adventure, Whye travelled to New Zealand in 1903. He had intended to go from there to Canada, but settled in New Zealand. At a time when there were few known Aboriginal expatriates, it is remarkable that Whye chose to live overseas. On 22 June 1904 at the Roman Catholic Church, Ōtāhuhu, Auckland, he married Mabel Annie Plumley; they had five children. Although his name was placed on the New Zealand Army Reserve List for World War I, he was not called up. From 1913 until his retirement in 1940 he worked as a signal erector for New Zealand Railways. In 1934, while working on the railway at Ruatangata, near Whangarei, he fell off a truck and fractured his right arm. Mabel died in 1932, and on 27 July 1935, at the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Epsom, Auckland, he married Ethel Elizabeth McCrory, a 48-year-old previously unmarried woman.

In retirement Whye supplemented his income by selling Australian Tattersall’s lottery tickets at the Star Hotel, Ōtāhuhu. A keen gardener, he had a vegetable patch that took up most of his backyard. He also had an interest in woodwork; he knew how trees grew, to read the direction of the grain and how to work with it, and he passed that knowledge down to his children. During the 1940s he and Ethel volunteered to foster children, creating a loving home and nurturing environment. He told his family about his Aboriginal heritage but he did not talk about his siblings or his previous life, nor did he ever return to Australia.

Predeceased by his wife and one child from his first marriage, Whye died on 28 April 1969 at his home at Ōtāhuhu and was buried at the Ōtāhuhu cemetery. The Last Post was played during the ceremony. Having lived a quiet life, he is remembered as a man whose pride was in his children and grandchildren. His legacy as an Aboriginal soldier has been recognised in recent history by a biography published by the Australian Boer War Memorial (Bakker, n.d.).

 

Kathryn Whye is of British and Wayilwan descent. She was born in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and now lives on Wathaurong Country. She consulted descendants in researching and writing this article.

Research edited by Kiera Donnelly

Select Bibliography

  • Bakker, Peter. ‘Trooper Alfred Whye.’ Australian Boer War Memorial. Royal Australian Armoured Corps Association NSW. n.d. Accessed 12 January 2021. https://www.bwm.org.au/soldiers/Alfred_WhyeNDD.php. Copy held on ADB file
  • New Zealand Herald. ‘Railwayman Breaks Arm.’ 25 January 1934, 10
  • South Auckland Courier. ‘Alf Whye Still Going Strong at 91 Years.’ 24 January 1968 3—4
  • Maynard, John. ‘The South African Boer War.’ In Serving Our Country, edited by Joan Beaumont and Allison Cadzow, 43–54. Sydney: New South Publishing, 2018
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kathryn Whye, 'Whye, Alfred Ernest (1882–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whye-alfred-ernest-30058/text37298, published online 2021, accessed online 11 April 2021.

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